The Situation for Women in Israel: More Violence, Less Representation and Growing Exclusion from Public Service

| Written By:

Women in senior government positions are leaving their roles, the number of victims of domestic violence is rising, and the prevailing spirit from the government does not bode well regarding the advancement of women to key public positions. A substantial change in prioritizing gender issues is urgently needed. Now more than ever, there must be a call for immediate and fundamental change in placing women's rights at the top of the national agenda.

Photo by: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

In the shadow of the war, alongside the acts of heroism and leadership that have been and still are displayed by many women, it is safe to say that the situation of women in Israel is worrying in many ways. First and foremost, the deepest concern is for the hostages being held in the cruel captivity of Hamas for more than 230 days and the great sorrow for all the women who were murdered, injured, and part of the circles of bereavement. In addition to the destruction and death left by the massacre and war, this war saw the emergence of an unprecedented phenomenon in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: cases of extreme sexual violence against Israelis carried out as part of the attack. After a shocking silence from international organizations on the issue and following a determined struggle by women's organizations in Israel, a UN investigation team arrived and published its findings in March.

This review will briefly present the state of affairs regarding the main issues unique to women at this time.

The Impact of the October 7th Massacre and Ongoing War on Women in Israel

The painful data shows that as of May 27, 2024, out of 1,577 fatalities in the Swords of Iron War, 343 were women, and 1,234 were men.

After an outrageously long silence, on March 4, 2024, a report was published by the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Areas, Pramila Patten. The report reveals evidence of rape and multiple perpetrator rape cases, as well as testimonies of sex crimes preceding or following murder. It states there is definitive evidence that captive women endured varying degrees of sexual violence and a high probability that such sexual violence continues against the women held captive by Hamas for over 150 days (with a call in the report for the immediate return of all hostages). Despite the UN Secretary-General's expression of regret over the findings, he has yet to see fit to convene the Security Council to discuss the report. Similar findings were also reported by the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel.

Along with the large and grievous number of victims and the wide circle of bereavement, the partnership of women in leadership, combat and civilian roles must be noted. For example, 19% of current reserve duty personnel are women.

There are many stories of women's heroism, such as the bravery of female Israel Police officers who sacrificed their lives protecting civilians, including Sergeant Mor Shakory z"l, a patrol supervisor at the Sderot Police Station who was killed by terrorists while saving the life of a Defense Ministry employee who came to assist officers under attack and was wounded in the battle. Another is Sergeant Major Yulia Wexer z"l, head of the Southern District Operations Department office, who fought heroically in the Re'im battle, where she fell.

In addition to the high physical and emotional tolls, the war is also exacting a toll on women in essential civilian roles like social workers, teachers, teaching assistants, medical teams, and more. The immense burden shouldered by these professionals is not reflected in their financial compensation or their social status, and it stands to reason it will also bear significant psychological costs requiring future support.

Representation of Women from Diverse Population Groups in Various Arenas

Local Government - In the elections held on February 27, 2024 and on March 10, 2024 (second round), 14 women were elected, 6 of them in municipalities that have never had a female mayor before (Oranit, Gan Raveh, Kokhav Ya'ir, Emek Yizreel, Kiryat Ono and Shoham). There are 7 more municipalities where elections were postponed in which women are running (in 6 of them due to the war, and in Tel Mond, there will be a late election round). 

Compared to the 2018 election results, where 15 women were elected as municipal heads (14 in 2018 and 1 more in 2020), currently, there is no increase in the number of female mayors. It's possible that after the remaining election round, there will be a slight improvement, establishing the number of female mayors at between 5-8% of all municipalities. Hopefully, this rise will also be reflected in the number of elected municipal council members. 

As in any election in Israel, some municipalities saw the defacement of campaign signs featuring female candidates. Despite these incidents, no indictments against the perpetrators have been published yet. A survey by the Viterbi Center at the Israel Democracy Institute found that a large majority of the public (72%) supports increased enforcement against this offense, including 64% of the ultra-Orthodox public, 57% of the Arab public, and an overwhelming 84% of the secular public.

Women in Government - Despite the expansion of the government with the addition of the National Unity Party (and the resignation of the New Hope Party from the government), the dramatic drop in the number of serving female ministers remains. Data collected by Prof. Ofer Kenig shows that out of 38 ministers, only 6 are women (most not in key positions in the government), placing Israel 97th out of 186 countries. In the security cabinet, only 1 out of 14 members is a woman (1 is an observing member), despite this being the body with authority over fateful decisions at this time, such as a deal for the return of the hostages. There are also no women on the negotiating team for the return of hostages, despite the substantive need and the mandatory requirement set in Section 6(g)1 of the Women's Equal Rights Law.

Lack of Female Director Generals in Ministries, Senior Women Leaving Government Positions, Other Positions Not Filled by Women - Not only are there currently no women serving as Director Generals of government ministries, but in recent months, senior women have left their positions under various circumstances. For example, the Director of the Government Companies Authority, Adv. Michal Rozenblum announced her resignation in December 2023 following repeated verbal attacks by Justice Minister David Amsalem, in part due to her gender. Another case involves the intent of the Minister of Economy, Nir Barkat, to dismiss for the first time the head of the Competition Authority, Adv. Michal Halperin, without presenting a substantive cause for her dismissal. Despite the grim picture of representation, the State Comptroller initially tried to avoid the Comptroller's obligation to ensure that women candidates are represented on selection committees (although this is already mandated by law). After a public outcry, the Comptroller reversed course and expressed a commitment to this requirement. 

Women on the Supreme Court - In October 2023, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Anat Baron retired and have not yet been replaced, leaving 4 women out of 13 serving justices. There is concern that even if new justices are appointed (which is, unfortunately, itself in doubt given the Justice Minister's refusal to advance Supreme Court appointments), they will not be women, and the percentage of women serving on the Supreme Court will actually decrease compared to today.

Violence Against Women 

As of May 2024, 12 women have already been murdered in 2024 due to domestic violence - a staggering statistic made more alarming by being higher than the number of women killed in the same period last year (data from the organization "Tizkur – Her Memorial"). Despite this, the National Security Ministry announced it would halt funding for the Michal Sela Forum, which provides protection methods for women under threat of domestic violence who remain in their homes rather than shelters. An estimated 200,000 women in Israel are subjected to domestic violence, a number feared to only rise after the war based on patterns seen during previous Israeli crises (wars and the COVID pandemic) and the recurring trend seen in wars in other countries worldwide (including the Russia-Ukraine war). Contrarily, there is no visible increase in budget allocations for this issue or planning for additional protection mechanisms for women who will face domestic violence post-war. The planned 3% cut to the Welfare Ministry budget and 5% cut to support budgets do nothing to aid this effort. Additionally, the massive push to proliferate civilian firearm ownership threatens women's safety, as data shows that increased availability of firearms correlates with increased violence against women, a concern also voiced by Welfare Minister Yaakov Margi over his ministry's lack of involvement in the vetting process to identify domestic violence risks.

Moreover, despite the fact that many Arab women are subjected to violence (domestic violence and organized crime violence), it is precisely during this period that the government makes substantial budget cuts to the five-year plans for the Arab community in the proposed budget. These plans are intended, among other things, to address the phenomenon of violence and crime, both through short-term measures (Government Resolution 549 dealing with violence and crime) and long-term investment (Government Resolution 550 and 1279 dealing with expanding infrastructures such as employment, education and more). An opinion submitted by a team from the Israel Democracy Institute proves that the five-year plans clearly helped reduce poverty rates among the Arab public and contributed to an increase in employment rates among both women and men. Therefore, these cuts are likely to directly harm women and increase their exposure to violence of all kinds.

The Situation Regarding Institutions Responsible for Promoting Women's Rights in Government

Following the government's 2023 decision to establish the Ministry for the Advancement of Women, alongside the promotion of a bill that threatened to strip the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women of all its powers, it was decided to reverse course; to close the Ministry for the Advancement of Women; incorporate it into the Ministry of Social Equality, and appoint a new director for the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women. It is still too early to know how these decisions will affect the functioning of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, but the hope is that restoring the Authority to full activity will lead to the realization of its statutory powers, such as submitting gender opinions on legislative proposals as required by law, expanding the pool of women for staffing public bodies, and more. One can now hope that the Authority will act to implement Government Resolution 2331 from 2014, which stipulates that the Authority should lead a national action plan dealing with, among other things, the representation of women in decision-making centers, prevention of violence, and equal opportunities.

In conclusion, many unique challenges stand in the way of the optimal and equal integration of women in decision-making centers in the State of Israel and providing full security from all forms of violence. While many countries have internalized their important role in promoting equality for women and protecting them (just recently, France, led by its President, anchored women's rights over their bodies, including the right to have an abortion, in the constitution), Israel lags far behind. 

At this time, when Israeli society is at a crossroads, and there is an urgent need to rehabilitate and strengthen many aspects of Israeli public life, gender equality must be included as an essential and integral part of any plan to rebuild a better future.